Most mammals are polyphasic sleepers, meaning that sleep is completed in two or more periods in a 24-hour cycle. Cats, dogs, bears, mice, and most other mammals, either domesticated or wild, take naps throughout the day. In contrast, modern human civilization is based on a monophasic sleep schedule, meaning we sleep only once per day.
While this may be optimal for working productively in a technology-based world, it may be making us more sleep deprived, suggests The National Sleep Foundation. They also point out that monophasic sleep may not be natural for humans, especially judging by the behavior of other species.
Instead, we might need a polyphasic sleep schedule (i.e. lots of naps). But what are the benefits of napping, and what does it mean to nap well? Here’s a guide to mastering the art of napping — plus how it can help you in mind and body.
Why Does Napping Matter?
Whether or not you’re a person who naps, it’s important to understand how naps influence our mental and physical health. Since naps increase our daily sleep time, they help enhance the positive impacts of sleep on our wellbeing.
This was demonstrated in a napping study at Weill Cornell Medical College where participants were asked to start a daily nap routine, napping for either 45 minutes or two hours for one month. Regardless of nap length, all participants in the study increased their daily sleep time and their nighttime sleep cycle wasn’t disrupted.
These naps also helped participants sleep better for longer. “Napping increased the time spent in slow-wave and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which are thought to play important roles in restoring the body and brain,” say the study’s authors.
Slow-wave sleep, or deep sleep, is the last stage of non-REM sleep. As the deepest stage of sleep, this part of the cycle is critical for restoring energy levels and promoting cell regeneration. This stage of the sleep cycle also helps boost the immune system, increase blood supply to the muscles, and promote the growth and repair of muscle tissue. Deep sleep’s ability to repair the physical body helps people recover more quickly from physical activity while reducing daytime tiredness.
Sleep and Cognitive Function
The effects of deep sleep on your brain and mental health are equally important. For example, deep sleep is when your body processes the information encountered each day and makes sense of it. This is the process by which memory is created — without deep sleep, we won’t be able to effectively remember the things we’ve learned each day.
This is also why increasing the hours of sleep you get each day is so important for overall cognitive functioning. Chronic lack of deep sleep has been associated with mental deterioration, including cognitive decline, memory loss, and alzheimer’s.
Additionally, napping decreases the irritability associated with fatigue, helping to improve mood and alertness while promoting relaxation. Napping can be especially important for seniors, as it boosts reaction time — an essential cognitive function that reduces fall-related injury.
Think about it: We’re more prone to getting into accidents when we’re sleep deprived because we can’t react as quickly. Regular napping has the ability to keep us energized, alert, and most of all, safe.
Precautions for Napping
As with any new activity or behavior change, it’s important to know any potential precautions before getting started. While napping is almost always a good idea, it’s possible to get too much sleep in some circumstances.
For example, people who struggle with insomnia may want to sleep during the day for long periods of time to make up for a lack of sleep during the night — but this can only perpetuate the problem. Sleeping for too long during the day can disrupt your sleep and create a shift-worker schedule where your body wants to be awake at night and sleep during the day, which also throws off your natural circadian rhythm.
Sleep inertia is another thing to keep in mind. Characterized by feelings of tiredness and grogginess after waking, sleep inertia is when you’re still mentally in a sleep state after waking up. It’s caused by the prefrontal cortex — responsible for decision making and self-control — which sometimes requires additional time to catch up with the waking body. Sleep inertia can impair concentration and make it hard for a person to function normally after taking a nap, which can disrupt daily activities.
Best Time to Nap
If you’re considering adding napping to your daily routine, you’re probably wondering when to nap. When you nap matters because napping too late in the day can make it difficult to fall asleep.
While it’s best not to nap after 5 p.m. as a general rule, some people who are more sensitive to sleep disruptions may want to finish a nap by 4 p.m. in order to get a restful night’s sleep. Moreover, the National Sleep Foundation suggests taking an afternoon nap between 2 and 3 p.m., especially if you adhere to a standard eating schedule and eat lunch around noon or 1 p.m.
“That’s because you’ve already eaten lunch and your blood sugar and energy levels will naturally start to dip. In fact, your body clock is often programmed to make you feel a little sleepy in the middle of the afternoon,” the National Sleep Foundation explains.
How Long Should a Nap Be?
It’s clear that napping is important for mental and physical health — especially when napping is approached mindfully. You might decide that you want to nap more often if you’re feeling uncharacteristically tired during the day, or you may simply want to add it to your routine.
But how long is the ideal nap? While the exact amount of time you need for a nap depends on age, physical activity level, and overall health, here’s a look at the different types of naps and their benefits.
Short naps, or power naps, are only 10-30 minutes long. They offer a quick burst of energy without taking too much time out of your day, and they don’t offer much time in deep sleep — thereby preventing sleep inertia and related grogginess. While a half-hour nap will likely offer more benefits than a 2-minute nap, any amount of rest and relaxation is helpful for making you more energized and resilient against the challenges of the day.
If you’re looking for a nap with more gusto, a 90-minute nap may be the best choice. While a longer nap increases the chances of waking up groggy, it also increases the opportunity to go through more stages of the sleep cycle and receive more of the benefits of sleep (the entire sleep cycle usually takes 90–110 minutes).
Long naps can also release compounds in the brain that make a person more tired, which — in contrast to the belief that napping disrupts nighttime sleep — actually improves sleep at night.
More Tips for Rest and Rejuvenation
If you’re not sure about napping or you’re entirely new to the process, you might start with a short afternoon meditation. This gives your body and mind a rest and can produce healthy brain waves similar to the ones achieved in light sleep. You might also take a look at your diet — avoiding caffeine late in the day can ensure you squeeze in both a nap and a full night of sleep without disruption.
If you’re taking sleep medication or even a natural sleep aid like melatonin, you may want to talk to your doctor about stopping the medication before adding naps into your routine. After all, the restful and healing nature of naps may negate the need for sleep medicine entirely, but only you and your doctor will know if it works for you. Lastly, measuring your daily sleep levels with a sleep tracker can help you gain a better picture of how napping improves your energy levels and supports your evening rest.
Napping to Improve Mind and Body
Napping is a natural mammalian function that has immense benefits for both mind and body. In addition to making you more rested physically, napping helps boost memory and improve resiliency against life’s challenges by reducing stress and irritability.
Napping often can also improve our ability to sleep better at night — as long as we’re mindful about when and how long we sleep. If you’re fatigued on a daily basis or you’re looking for a way to boost memory and energy, napping could be an effective way to improve your quality of life.